It’s 8:30 on a bright Friday evening, and a white pickup truck rumbles through the streets of Portland’s Pearl District. Five guys in big-brimmed hats, western shirts, and jeans sit along the rail of the truck bed, shouting at people as they roll by. Bullfighters Christian Mills and AJ Neal, bull riders KeAon Griffin and Malachi Anderson, and a friend of the rodeo who goes by “Thunder” are heading from a preparty in an upscale apartment building’s common area to the River Pig Saloon. They crack jokes about Portlanders being confused by Black cowboys. As the truck bounces east down NW Lovejoy St, a rodeo fan shouts: “See you Sunday!” from his post working a bar door. A crisp black western hat sits above his huge smile.

The cowboys—a variety of rodeo talents between them—are in town for the second annual 8 Seconds Juneteenth Rodeo. This year it's held at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and it’s even bigger than its notably successful first year at the Expo Center.

“It’s not like this at other rodeos,” Mills explains. “Normally you come to town, fight bulls, get paid, and go home.” But this weekend, these elite athletes get private parties, multi-course dinners, open bar tabs, and shuttles to and from their luxury downtown hotel—and somehow there’s a mechanical bull set up everywhere they go.

Neal chats with bar patrons as others watch the mechanical bull. PHOTO SEAN BASCOM
Bull rider Garfield Wilson III giving the mechanical version a try. PHOTO SEAN BASCOM

The 8 Seconds Rodeo was born from Portland photojournalist and designer Ivan McClellan’s Eight Seconds project documenting Black rodeo and cowboy culture in the United States, which is also on exhibition at Blue Sky Gallery through June 29.

At his opening artist’s talk on June 6, McClellan described his first Black rodeo in Oklahoma, which opened with the Pan-African flag and “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” saying: “I realized what they were doing at that rodeo–working the land, working with animals–was stuff that enslaved people did. But they were doing it in this space for their own entertainment and their own profit.” McClellan and Gresham City Commissioner Vince Jones-Dixon came together to bring their own Black rodeo to Portland in 2023 with overwhelming community support.

Neal (left) and Mills (right) laughing down NW 16th Ave. Sean Bascom
Rodney Smith, Malachi Anderson, and KeAon Griffin (clockwise from left) in the elevator. Sean Bascom

Mills and Neal are bullfighters. Along with Tyler Torrey, they make up the team that keeps bull riders safe by pulling the bull’s attention on themselves when the rider falls off. It takes a massive amount of discipline, focus, and teamwork to do well. “You gotta do it straight and do it right. No shortcuts,” says Mills. “There's an integrity to it.” And since bullfighters work for the rodeo, they can count on getting paid no matter what – unlike competing athletes who may get the big prize or go home empty-handed.

Mills has more than bullfighting going on these days. After this weekend, he’s heading to a week-long rodeo bible camp that he helps with every year. “I teach bull riding, but I think I’m also going to be a group leader this year,” he says. “It feels good to do – those kids are the bull riders of tomorrow.”

Mills and Neal getting ready to warm-up for the rodeo. PHOTO SEAN BASCOM

Just hours before the rodeo starts. Mills and Neal warm up outside the Coliseum garbed in t-shirts, basketball shorts, and slides. Grabbing a volleyball from his green conversion van, Mills relates why it became their warm-up of choice. “It’s good for everything—coordination, footwork, tracking. Some guys juggle a soccer ball or play hacky sack, but this works for us.”

“It started from just messing around,” adds Neal. “Then we realized it was great for this.” This is Neal’s last bullfight, saying he’s going back to bull riding because the pay is potentially thousands of dollars higher per rodeo. 

Neal, Torrey, and Mills (left to right) searching for the post-rodeo after party. Sean Bascom
Neal waiting for his sandwich before heading to bed. Sean Bascom

After the rodeo, Mills, Neal, and Torrey are the last of the athletes to finish up at the venue and set out for the after party. Finding out there was no open tab for them like previous nights and running out of steam, Neal decides to grab a sandwich and head back to the hotel. After chasing the rest of the group around downtown, Mills and Torrey finish the night at Dixie’s over bar food and drink-ticket beers with a small group of event organizers. Torrey and Neal fly out early in the morning. Mills will head out into a 15-hour solo drive back to Colorado.